Editor’s note: Throughout this story, the names of two sexual abuse survivors and their parents have been changed to protect their privacy and for clarity, including when they—or their pseudonyms or initials—appear in documents and police and court records.
Part I: “Professional Boundaries”
Caroline Eidson knew something was wrong.
It wasn’t just that Nick Smith had boundary issues, or that his middle-school students at the Montessori School of Raleigh viewed him less like an authority figure and more like a friend. (“He seemed like one of us,” one recalls.) It wasn’t even Smith’s peculiar closeness with some adolescent girls—and one ninth grader in particular—or that his unnerving behavior during a school trip had led another girl to complain to her father.
In isolation, perhaps, each of these things could be explained. But to Eidson, MSR’s middle school language-arts director, the totality suggested something more disquieting. So a few weeks before the 2012–13 school year began, she took her concerns to her new boss.
Nancy Errichetti, who’d become head of school just a month earlier, was evidently troubled by what Eidson told her. On August 7, 2012, according to an email exchange obtained by the INDY, she told Eidson that she’d “had time to reflect on what you shared with me and also to seek advice from our school attorney. … I am also virtually certain I will not allow [Smith] to attend the overnight in two weeks”—a reference to one of several chaperoned trips MSR students take throughout the year.
Errichetti asked Eidson to put in writing what she’d seen and heard. On August 13, Eidson did, cataloging a series of anecdotes from the previous two years. In October 2010, she wrote, during an overnight trip to a farm, “Nick was in one of the girls’ rooms … late into the night (about 11:00) for a ‘gossip session.’” In March 2011, during an overnight trip to Chapel Hill, Smith—the only chaperone—played a game of “Would You Rather?” with a group of teenage girls in their hotel room. One of the girls’ fathers told the INDY that Smith entered the room, where three boys were on one bed and three girls were on the other, told the boys to leave, turned on an R-rated movie, and asked the girls if they’d rather kiss a particular male MSR student or a female student.
After the father relayed the incident to the school’s Board of Trustees, Smith was informally reprimanded: “Nick told me that [then-head of school Meg Thomas] told him that he needed to be careful in his interactions with the girls but that she was not going to put the parent’s written concern in his file,” Eidson wrote to Errichetti.
Then came, in hindsight, the most consequential revelation: In January 2012, Eidson wrote, she observed Smith and a ninth grader, Stephanie Johnson (not her real name), “working alone in the math room for several weeks. … Starting about the middle of the year, they started to go up to the Pottery Shack alone during [study hall].” The Pottery Shack is a metal outbuilding on MSR’s sprawling, secluded Brier Creek secondary-school campus used for arts and crafts.
That spring, Eidson continued, “I observed Nick and Stephanie going to and/or returning from the Pottery Shack on 2 occasions after school. … As well, I observed several times when Nick and Stephanie spent recess together, walking alone up and down the road leading to the [middle school].” In addition, she wrote, during a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, a teacher witnessed Smith and Stephanie “on the beach alone playing with one another’s hands.” (Eidson, who left MSR in 2013, declined to comment for this story.)
The day after Eidson’s email, Errichetti admonished Smith, a thirty-one-year-old N.C. State graduate who’d taught math at MSR since 2006. He was forced to sign a “behavioral plan” that included such “directives for professional conduct” as: “You should never socialize or interact with students in a way that you would socialize or interact with adults”; “You are not to be alone with any student on school property or on school trips”; and “You are not to enter a ‘girls’ [sic] hotel room on school trips.”
“Failure to abide by the directives in this plan … will result in a first warning as outlined by the Employee Handbook,” the plan concluded.
A few weeks later, Eidson informed Errichetti that, on a trip in early August, Smith had gone to the girls’ floor of a hotel to wake them up. “While what he did is certainly not as egregious as some of his previous behavior,” Eidson wrote in an email, “there really is no reason that he needs to approach the girls’ rooms at all when there are female chaperones who can do it instead.” This prompted Eidson to ask, “Is it your expectation that Nick will not go on trips at this point? He is making plans … to go to the beach for an intersession trip in October and has offered to go on any and all trips that arise. My previous understanding was that you did not want him to go on trips. Is this still the case?”
“My conversation with Nick was explicit and thorough,” Errichetti replied. “Given our understanding at the time, there was no need for me to excuse him from trips. Unless I get some real clarity about this recent choice, this may change.”
It didn’t change.
Nicholas Conlon Smith continued teaching at MSR—and chaperoning trips—until November 7, 2017, when he was arrested on more than twenty charges of statutory rape and child pornography stemming from a sexual relationship Raleigh police say he had with Stephanie in 2011 and 2012. Smith is currently in the Wake County jail on a bond of more than $3 million and faces decades behind bars.
In January, Stephanie, her younger sister Kristen (also not her real name), and their parents filed a lawsuit against Smith, Errichetti, and MSR, alleging not only that Smith had abused Stephanie on the school’s watch but that he’d later molested Kristen as well. (In March, a grand jury indicted Smith on separate charges of grabbing Kristen’s breasts and buttocks and attempting to kiss her.) The lawsuit claims the school “willfully failed to take appropriate actions that would have prevented the egregious sexual molestation of [Smith’s] young female students, including but not necessarily limited to Stephanie and Kristen.”
MSR stood by its head of school. When the INDY reported on the lawsuit in early May, the Board of Trustees said in a statement that it “supports our school’s leadership and will vigorously defend our school’s actions.” Errichetti remained on the job, collecting a salary of about $200,000, according to court documents, up from the nearly $158,000 tax records show her making a few years earlier.
If that’s where the story ended, this might be just another teacher-sex scandal with the not-so-uncommon twist of a school accused of failing to intervene. But it’s not.
On May 15, a Wake County grand jury took the unprecedented step of indicting Errichetti on charges of aiding and abetting Smith in taking indecent liberties with a child and of contributing to the delinquency and neglect of a minor. In recent years, a handful of school administrators around the country have been prosecuted on misdemeanor charges of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse, but this was different: The aiding-and-abetting count is a felony that carries the possibility of more than three years in prison.
By all accounts, no charges like these have ever been brought in North Carolina—perhaps, even, anywhere in the United States. Wake County assistant district attorney Melanie Shekita, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor, told the INDY she’s “unfamiliar with any similar cases.” Advocates and experts say they aren’t either.
Making the charges stick won’t be easy, legal experts say. The indictment accuses Errichetti of not just failing to report Smith—which would be rare enough, as only one such case was brought in North Carolina in 2017—but with “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” facilitating his abuse. To convict her, says Jeff Welty, director of the N.C. Judicial College at the UNC School of Government, Shekita must convince jurors that Errichetti either knew about sexual abuse and declined to act or that she ignored obvious “red flags” and was “playing ostrich.”
The charges are “never gonna fly,” says Steve Saad, a former Wake County prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer. “Never gonna fly.”
Errichetti’s indictment didn’t happen in a vacuum. Over the last year, the #MeToo movement has brought to the foreground a parade of powerful men who used their privilege to abuse women. Perhaps more germane, high-profile sex-abuse scandals involving the Catholic church and Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State universities—as well as more everyday incidents of educator misconduct—have exposed officials who protected predators instead of stopping them.
“Every case we see, somebody knew something,” says Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney whose firm specializes in representing sexual abuse survivors. In response, he says, prosecutors have been taking a more aggressive posture toward administrators, signaling that “they’re gonna be charged if they sit back and let things happen.” To date, however, they’ve been “a little reluctant to send them to jail,” instead opting to “give them a record and get them the hell out of education.”
But in Wake County, the District Attorney’s Office is taking a harder line, targeting Errichetti as if she were Smith’s accomplice.
“That’s where we’d like to see all prosecutors going with these cases,” says Terri Miller, president of the organization Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation. “Because when they do fail to make these reports, it is deliberate child endangerment.”
Through her attorney, Errichetti declined an interview request. But since her arrest, MSR has insisted that, while Errichetti tried to address Smith’s boundary issues, the head of school wasn’t aware of allegations of sexual abuse and shouldn’t be held responsible for the teacher’s actions. If anything, her defenders argue, Errichetti isn’t the villain, but rather a victim of an overzealous prosecutor.
For the last five months, the INDY has probed these dueling narratives, as well as the turmoil that has engulfed MSR, drawing on dozens of interviews, court and police records, and internal emails and documents not yet made public. The first comprehensive look at what happened at MSR, this investigation reveals that, in 2016, Errichetti was told not only about Smith’s boundary issues, but also that he’d touched Kristen Johnson’s thigh and grabbed her hips. Despite that, and despite Eidson’s warning four years earlier, Errichetti did not report Smith to the authorities, nor did she fire him.
Whether this inaction rises to the level of criminal conduct is a complicated question. What is clear, however, is that if Stephanie Johnson hadn’t broken her silence, Nick Smith might still be in an MSR classroom today.
For five years after she matriculated out of MSR, Stephanie said nothing to her parents or siblings, let alone the cops. But last fall, when Stephanie was a junior in college, Kristen confided in her that Smith had fondled her, according to police records.
After that, things moved quickly. Stephanie disclosed her and her sister’s relationships with Smith to a college counselor. The counselor called Child Protective Services, which called the Raleigh Police Department on September 28, 2017. By October 9, a detective was assigned to the case. On November 7, with the sisters’ statements in hand, police had Smith in handcuffs.
Taken together, police records and documents from the Johnsons’ lawsuit paint a vivid and at times graphic picture of the abuse the sisters say occurred at MSR between the fall of 2011, when Stephanie entered ninth grade (the final year of Montessori middle school), and the spring of 2016, when Kristen abruptly exited the school. According to these documents, Smith began flirting with and “grooming” Stephanie for sexual abuse in 2009, when she was twelve and in seventh grade.
Soon after Stephanie started ninth grade, Smith kissed her in the Pottery Shack. Not long after, he began raping her, police say. According to a probable cause affidavit, “These acts took place on a regular basis” throughout the school year. Smith and Stephanie “sent and received sexually explicit photos to one another,” which Smith saved onto his computer in a password-protected file to hide from his then-wife, according to the affidavit. (They divorced in 2014.) Smith told Stephanie that he “loved her,” the lawsuit says, and assured her they had a normal “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship.
Stephanie was one of just eight students in her ninth-grade class that year—three girls and five boys. Like the rest, she called her teachers by their first names, but she called Smith “Senior,” perhaps because there was once another Nick on MSR’s staff. That nickname had an unintentional irony: Despite a receding hairline, Senior looked youthful, almost boyish. He was friendly and easygoing, popular among most teachers and students.
When Stephanie left MSR, their relationship ended, the records say, though they chatted online until three months before Smith’s arrest. According to the lawsuit, “As Stephanie grew older, [Smith] stated to Stephanie that he would take his own life if she ever told anyone about their relationship.”
After Kristen started seventh grade at MSR in 2014, police and court records say, Smith began to repeat the grooming pattern. Kristen later told police that, on several occasions during her eighth-grade year, Smith touched her hips, thighs, and breasts, including once when he groped her breast at a Harris Teeter. More rebellious and less deferential to authority than her older sister—and also forewarned about Smith by an older stepsister who’d also gone to MSR—Kristen fought off her teacher’s advances. In March 2016, Smith attempted to friend Kristen on Snapchat. Kristen blocked him, and Smith got angry.
Two months later, Kristen’s parents found out and complained to Errichetti—both about the social media overture and “that Nick Smith has been touching Kristen and pursuing a personal relationship with her,” according to documents the INDY has obtained.
Errichetti, the lawsuit says, told the Johnsons that “she did not believe what she was being told, and she refused to take any action with respect to their complaints.”
It’s not fully accurate that Errichetti took no action, just that she didn’t do so right away. About three weeks later, on June 2, 2016, she had Smith sign a second behavioral plan, virtually identical to the one he’d signed in 2012, including directives not to be alone with students and to avoid girls’ hotel rooms. The only difference: a warning that a third offense could lead to termination.
The dates of Smith’s two behavioral plans—August 14, 2012, and June 2, 2016—form the bookends of Errichetti’s indictment, between which she “did aid and abet Nicholas Smith, to take or attempt to take immoral, improper, or indecent liberties with Kristen. … Specifically, the defendant had previously [sic] knowledge of inappropriate behavior toward other students in whose care he was entrusted as a school teacher, the defendant, as head master [sic] was in a position to act and failed to do so, which resulted in Kristen being sexually abused.”
This raises two questions, the first straightforward, an issue of fact: What exactly did Errichetti know? The second is a matter of interpretation, ambiguous even in state law: At what point would Errichetti have known enough that not going to the cops was aiding and abetting him—the legal equivalent to driving a getaway car after a robbery?
A teacher sending an unwanted Snapchat request might be inappropriate, but it’s not criminal. Neither, for that matter, is engaging teenagers in a game of “Would You Rather?” Smith holding hands with Stephanie would arouse suspicion, but even that isn’t explicitly sexual behavior.
That’s the school’s position—that Errichetti didn’t know enough to have committed a crime. In an email to faculty the day after her arrest, the Board of Trustees said it had “no information or evidence that Nancy was aware of any sexual assault. When presented with concerns about Nick Smith’s professional boundaries, Nancy took those concerns very seriously.” During a forum with teachers a day after that, a board member added, “We have absolutely no data whatsoever, no behavioral plans, no anything that suggests that Nancy had any awareness of any inappropriate sexual behavior whatsoever. The charge against her stems from concerns related to Nick Smith’s professional boundaries that were shared with her [during] her first month of school,” a reference to Eidson’s email.
This distinction is important.
“The prosecution’s case against her is going to rise and fall on what she knew,” says Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a Duke law professor. Specifically, she says, it’s going to rise and fall on whether Errichetti knew not only that Smith was behaving improperly, but whether she knew that he had engaged in “sexual touching”—in other words, touching the genitals, buttocks, breasts, or kissing.
Nothing in the public record indicates that Errichetti knew Smith had sexually touched Stephanie Johnson. This could be key to Errichetti’s criminal defense, as the aiding-and-abetting charge is rooted in the idea that Errichetti’s failure to act in 2012 enabled Smith to abuse Kristen years later. But there is evidence that, in May 2016, Errichetti was told that Smith had inappropriately touched Kristen.
In a May 6 letter to Errichetti, which the INDY has obtained, the Johnsons lodged a formal complaint against Smith. If his behavior continued unabated, they wrote, they’d have to withdraw Kristen from the school. “As a result of Mr. Smith’s unprofessional behavior,” they added, “Kristen has experienced considerable distress this semester. This has included tears, worry, anxiety, anger, embarrassment, stomach aches, and confusion.”
They explained that they’d found text messages between Kristen and one of her siblings in which Kristen described Smith’s conduct. “In addition to what Kristen describes in the text messages,” they wrote, “she reports that Mr. Smith has called her away from classwork to ask about how she feels about him, and why she doesn’t like him. She states that she feels like ‘his eyes undress me’ and is ‘creeped out by him.’ … [When] she referred to being touched ‘multiple times’ one day at school by him, she is referring to him repeatedly putting his hand on her shoulder, arm, and thigh while trying to have unwanted non-academic conversations with her.”
The Johnsons also sent Errichetti transcripts of Kristen’s recollections of her conversations with Smith. In April, they wrote, Smith pulled Kristen out of a humanities class and ordered her to sit on a swing; she refused, saying she’d rather stand, and pointed out that the entire class could see them.
“You’re being disrespectful to me,” Smith told her, according to the parents’ account. “I feel like you’re doing this on purpose. You don’t treat me like the other teachers. … Every time you look at me, you give me a death stare. I know you’re deliberately making me uncomfortable by the way you are treating me.”
Later in the conversation, Kristen told Smith point-blank why she didn’t like him: “Don’t act like you haven’t done this before. My sisters warned me about you.”
“Which one?” Smith asked.
“My sister,” Kristen said. A source familiar with the Johnsons’ version of events says Kristen was referring to her stepsister, who is younger than Stephanie but older than her and also went to MSR. The stepsister is not part of the family’s lawsuit, and Smith has not been accused of abusing her.
“I get it now what they meant,” Kristen continued. “… I feel violated and uncomfortable. I don’t feel good at school. I just want to finish and get out of here.”
“Am I the reason that you hate this school?” Smith asked.
“Yes. You are a big part of it, and other stuff, too.”
Once again, Errichetti was alarmed. At 10:33 p.m. on May 9, 2016, Errichetti fired off an email to Smith, who’d recently left to chaperone a middle-school trip to Europe. “The Johnsons,” she wrote, “delivered a package to me today containing a letter and other information outlining allegations against you with regard to their daughter … including inappropriate touching and conversations, and a recent attempt by you to engage with her on Snapchat.”
Errichetti continued: “I will conduct a full investigation upon your return. In the meantime, I expect you to comport yourself as the highest level professional in carrying out your duties as an MSR teacher on this trip. You need to exercise impeccable judgment, make sure you are never alone with any student and that you do not enter any student hotel rooms for any reason. If you are engaging in social media with any students, you need to immediately cease those activities.”
Kristen, she added, “also apparently stated that you have done similar things to” another female student, who was on the Europe trip. “Therefore, I want you to exercise particular caution in your dealings with [her].”
Errichetti’s response to Kristen’s allegations appears to run counter to the protocol outlined in MSR’s 2015–16 Employee Handbook, which says that when the head of school is told of suspected abuse, she must report it to authorities. “The Head of School,” the handbook says, “is not to act as a screener of reports, but as a liaison or channel.”
But Errichetti didn’t alert social services or the police. And because MSR failed to protect Kristen, the Johnsons’ lawsuit says, she “was forced to leave the school.”
Part II: “Tyrant”
Even before Nancy Errichetti’s arrest, MSR was racked by turmoil. Afterward, things only got worse.
By the end of the school year, MSR had lost at least one-fifth of its seventy-eight faculty members. More departed over the summer. Six faculty members, including outspoken Errichetti critics, were let go. Some remaining teachers worried they’d be fired for speaking out, too. Some parents pulled their kids amid the tumult.
The tension boiled over to the point that school officials were worried MSR would collapse entirely. In late May, after a meeting between Board of Trustees and faculty, a teacher sent an email to MSR’s staff: “The board members would like for us to present a unified front for the parents. This would help reduce the risk of further family departures and help make certain that the school is able to open in the fall.”
In interviews over the summer, several members of the MSR community wondered the same thing: Why was the board so determined to stick with Errichetti, when many schools would have dropped her at the first hint of scandal?
For months, the INDY sought answers to this and other questions, requesting interviews with board members either directly or through the school’s spokespeople. In late August, after these efforts proved fruitless, the INDY submitted eighteen detailed questions to MSR’s Board of Trustees. In late September, the school responded with a four-sentence statement attributed to chairman Joe Lee that concluded, “At this time, we do not believe it is appropriate, helpful, or productive to comment on these matters outside of the legal process.” (In August, the school’s lawyers also filed a motion to prevent Robby Jessup, the Johnsons’ attorney, from sharing the contents of depositions with the media.)
Among those unanswered questions is why Errichetti, now fifty-five, was hired to helm the school in the first place. On paper, she wasn’t an obvious choice. She’d never run a school before—let alone one with four hundred students that charges up to $19,390 in tuition—and had a limited background in Montessori culture.
A decade and a half before she was appointed head of school, Errichetti was a New York City lawyer married to Goldman Sachs vice president Evan Misshula. When she decided to get pregnant with the first of their three children, she left her law firm and started a consulting business for Big Apple parents, according to a 1998 book she co-authored called Who Knew Raising Kids in New York Could Be This Easy? Soon after, Misshula started his own hedge fund, and in 2002 they exchanged their Park Avenue apartment for a five-bedroom house in Greenwich, Connecticut.
By 2004, however, the hedge fund had gone belly up, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents, and Errichetti had moved with their three kids to California, where she took a fundraising job at a private school in Los Angeles, according to court records and her LinkedIn page. Then, in 2006, Misshula pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of a scheme to defraud investors of more than half a million dollars. He was sentenced to twenty-one months in federal prison, and in 2007, Errichetti filed for legal separation. The next year, she was granted a divorce.
In 2010, Errichetti moved to Raleigh, where her older sister lived, and accepted a position as MSR’s director of development and alumni relations. Within two years, she was appointed head of school. While some members of the MSR community were skeptical of her inexperience, others welcomed Errichetti’s energy and drive.
At first, says Janie Jackson, former director of MSR’s Children’s House, Errichetti seemed open to listening and learning from the school’s faculty. But that didn’t last long, her critics say. “I think ultimately, what Nancy’s agenda was, was to be a rock star that made the circuit nationally about, ‘Look what this woman did,’” says Jackson.
It wasn’t so much what she did, her detractors say, but how she did it: “She was harsh; she was brash; she was demoralizing all of the people who she felt were going to get in her way,” a former teacher says.
Some faculty members began to view her as a micromanager who brooked no dissent. “Her tenure was tumultuous,” says a teacher who left several years ago. “Tyrant sounds like the right word. Staff morale was very rocky.”
Of course, these denunciations—sometimes from people with axes to grind—only tell one side of the story. Indeed, the board thought highly enough of Errichetti not only to keep her around but to give her at least two significant raises in six years, according to tax records and court documents.
Errichetti notched several significant accomplishments at MSR. She oversaw the completion of a high school, which now features an international baccalaureate program, making MSR one of only three independent schools in the state to offer students the opportunity to earn an IB diploma. She supervised the construction of a new upper school building and led a successful capital campaign to fund it. During her tenure, the school also built a new high school gym, administrative offices, a new fine arts center, and broke ground on a soccer field. And earlier this year, the American Montessori Association reaccredited MSR with what the school describes as “overwhelmingly positive feedback.”
Some of the tension between Errichetti and the school’s faculty could be ascribed to cultural differences. Montessori schools tend to have less structured and more free-wheeling environments than traditional schools, with an emphasis on independent exploration, collaboration, and critical thinking (see “The Montessori Method,” below). Errichetti, the Manhattan lawyer, wanted to get things done. It’s not difficult to imagine how those approaches could clash.
But it would be wrong to dismiss Errichetti’s critics as a small contingent of malcontents. Meetings the board held with parents and faculty after Errichetti’s arrest made clear the head of school had few allies among them. In recordings of these meetings provided to the INDY, parents and teachers grilled board members about their unflinching defense of Errichetti, the lack of trust within the school, and the fact that several popular teachers were shown the door without a good explanation—or, at least, an explanation that didn’t smack of petty grievance.
In April 2017, after contracts for the next school year had been signed, four faculty members went to the Board of Trustees with complaints about Errichetti’s leadership and the morale problems they said it was causing. A fifth went on his own to the board president, while a sixth approached board members with questions about the school’s leadership structure, sources say. By April 30, 2018—what one former teacher calls “Massacre Monday”—Errichetti had dispatched all but one of the six. Four saw their contracts not renewed for 2018–19, while another was fired during the 2017–18 school year.
In June and in August, two teachers whose contracts weren’t renewed sued for wrongful termination. Both were among the group that approached the board, but they don’t claim that’s why Errichetti fired them. Instead, they say it’s because they cooperated with the police investigation into Nick Smith.
The first lawsuit, filed by Janie Jackson, lays out a timeline in support of her case: On April 19, Jackson was given her student roster and class assignment for the upcoming year, an indication that the school planned to keep her around. On April 24, as part of the discovery process in the Johnson lawsuit, the school received a summary of Jackson’s interview with the Raleigh police from November—“the first time Defendants became aware of Plaintiff cooperating with police.” (In that interview, the lawsuit says, Jackson told police about an end-of-year party in 2015 in which a retiring teacher regaled the audience with a story about Smith getting drunk with students. Errichetti responded by putting her fingers in her ears and saying, “Stop, I don’t want to hear this.”)
On April 30, the lawsuit says, Jackson was summoned to a meeting with Errichetti and told her services would no longer be needed. Errichetti “refused to tell [Jackson] why her employment was being terminated, beyond saying that she no longer fit the ‘culture’ of the school” where she had taught for nine years.
The second lawsuit, filed by a physical education teacher who had been at MSR for seventeen years, tells a similar story. Chris Keown’s lawsuit says he spoke to police in November, the school found out in April, and he was let go a week later without being given a “substantive reason.”
In his lawsuit, Keown claims he “personally witnessed [Errichetti] orally discouraging faculty and staff at [MSR] from cooperating or speaking with the Raleigh Police Department,” and “personally witnessed [Errichetti] orally telling faculty and staff at [MSR] to come to her with any information they thought was relevant to the police investigation as opposed to going to the police.”
The school denies both teachers’ claims. In a statement to the INDY in June, Joe Lee said Jackson’s lawsuit “wrongly attempts to tie her employment status to a tragic and unrelated event in our school’s history. The decision not to renew this teacher’s contract had absolutely nothing to do with her cooperation with the police.” And in an email to MSR families in September, the board said Keown was “given specific reasons about why his contract was not renewed, and those reasons were based entirely on his job performance and productivity.”
Part III: “Bright Future”
By any measure, Nancy Errichetti had a horrible year.
Last September, she suffered the sudden death of her oldest daughter, a junior at UNC-Wilmington. Two months later, Nick Smith was arrested. Two months after that, the Johnsons sued Errichetti. Two months after that, an anonymous letter circulated among MSR families accusing Errichetti and the school’s leaders of “holding the faculty in a state of fear” and creating a “culture of lies” that led to a school that “is broken beyond anything imaginable.”
And then, two months after that, Errichetti was arrested. The salacious story was picked up by the Associated Press. Her mugshot—watery eyes, disheveled, dyed-blonde hair betraying dark roots, a normally composed woman struggling to keep it together—was plastered all over the local news.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for her. In fact, says Anna Salter, a psychologist and expert on child predators, “It’s very dangerous to demonize these people.”
Salter says it’s not surprising that school officials weren’t more proactive. After all, Smith was well-liked. “The most successful predators are those that are likable,” she says. “There seems to be a human tendency to trust people that we like [and] to distrust people that we don’t like. So the best possible cover for a sex offender is to be a likable person who is trusted and respected by other teachers in the school and the administration.”
There’s also institutional loyalty to contend with, she says: “It’s not usually because the person who is defending the alleged perpetrator is an evil person. It is usually because they respond to social psychology forces. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want the school to look bad. They don’t want the hard work they’ve done to be undone. They can’t believe [the accusation]: ‘He’s such a nice guy. Maybe he was a little careless, but he wouldn’t do anything really bad.’”
The end result, Salter says, is that “it’s very rare for an institution to hear a report of inappropriate behavior and step back and treat that person objectively.”
This is a pernicious problem. According to Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on educator sexual abuse, nearly one in ten students report being the target of school employee sexual misconduct—ranging from harassment to inappropriate jokes to rape—between kindergarten and high school graduation.
Shakeshaft served on a task force commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools (of which MSR is a member) and The Association of Boarding Schools, which released a report in March with recommendations for preventing abuse in schools. While better awareness has led to a decrease in the rate of child abuse and an increase in the percentage of incidents being reported, the report says, “some schools have responded to incidents of educator sexual misconduct in ways that have further harmed survivors and failed to protect future students from abuse.”
The key, the report says, is effective leadership. “Schools must not confuse institutional integrity with institutional reputation,” it says. “The truest measure of institutional strength is the integrity with which a school lives out its mission and values. In preventing and responding to educator sexual misconduct, a school may find its integrity put to the test. Thus, strong leadership is needed … to prevent educator sexual misconduct, to address allegations when they arise, and, to the extent possible, to ameliorate the effects of that abuse when it does occur.”
Perhaps for that reason, law enforcement is taking a closer look at school leaders. “It is starting to happen,” Shakeshaft says. “The police and prosecutors are starting to bring charges.”
But these charges tend to be misdemeanors—enough for community service or probation, but not jail time. For example, in a breakthrough 2012 case, a principal in San Jose, California, was given two years’ probation and community service after an eight-year-old student told her about a teacher’s sexual abuse and she failed to report it. Last year in Massachusetts, the former director of a daycare was sentenced to three years’ probation and a $1,000 fine after being charged with reckless endangerment for failing to act on information that an intern was inappropriately touching children. In January, a Rhode Island elementary school principal was found guilty of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse and was given a one-year suspended sentence and community service.
The case against Errichetti is at once an extension of this trend and something more, though it’s not clear what, if anything, sets this case apart. Prosecutor Melanie Shekita declined to discuss the charges and why she’s seeking a felony conviction, beyond saying that she presented facts to a grand jury and the grand jury indicted Errichetti. It’s possible the DA’s Office wants to use the felony charge as leverage, says Steve Saad, the former prosecutor turned defense attorney.
Shakeshaft says Errichetti should have conducted a thorough investigation in 2012, when she was told about Smith’s hand-holding with Stephanie Johnson. In 2016, when told that Smith had touched Kristen Johnson inappropriately, she should have contacted the authorities—or, at minimum, fired him.
That she didn’t probably helps the Johnsons’ lawsuit, Saad says. “That’s where the failure to act becomes a liability. But criminally? I don’t see it. They’re never gonna prove it.”
Despite the tribulations, the Montessori School of Raleigh did open this fall. In mid-July, the Board of Trustees told parents in an email, “We have been impressed with the quality and quantity of the applications received for our open positions—there is a deep pool of talented individuals excited about becoming part of the MSR community. … Our school has a long, rich history and a bright future ahead.”
That bright future might soon include a date with a Wake County jury. A trial date in the Johnsons’ lawsuit is tentatively set for January, according to court documents. No matter what happens in court, though, even the school’s harshest critics say they don’t want it run out of existence. They just want new leadership.
On August 8, they got their wish. The Board of Trustees announced that it had hired a new interim head of school, Jeannie Norris, whose previous experience includes sixteen years leading a private school in Massachusetts.
“The Montessori School of Raleigh is focusing on our future and fulfilling our mission of educating children,” Joe Lee told the INDY in a written statement. “Under the new leadership of an outstanding interim head of school, we are continuing to rebuild trust in the larger community and strengthen the values that have defined the Montessori School of Raleigh for the last forty-four years.”
While MSR tries to move forward, Errichetti is still on the school’s payroll. Though she’s on administrative leave and has stepped away from school operations, Errichetti continues to collect her $200,000-a-year salary.
In the eleven months since Nick Smith’s arrest, no other students appear to have accused him of abuse. MSR says it has seen no evidence of any additional victims, either. But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there, says Anna Salter. “The fact that this man is accused of molesting two kids—even two kids from the same family—suggests that this was not an isolated instance.”
Additional reporting by Chloe Lessard. Research assistance by Alexandria Hyers.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman. Follow intern Cole Villena on Twitter @colevillena.
The Montessori Method
There are more than four thousand accredited Montessori schools in the United States, and they’ve educated everyone from Jeff Bezos to Stephen Curry to Beyoncé.
The Montessori method, developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early twentieth century, emphasizes child-directed education. The most distinctive component is the use of multi-age classrooms. The Montessori program is built around three-year cycles, in which students remain in the same classroom for three consecutive years, with older kids matriculating out of that cycle and younger kids coming in. Learning alongside children of varying ages mimics the outside world, where students will “work and socialize with people of all ages and dispositions,” the American Montessori Society explains on its website.
Another unique feature is a lack of graded work. “The Montessori approach nurtures the motivation that comes from within, kindling the child’s natural desire to learn,” the AMS says. “A self-motivated learner also learns to be self-sufficient, without needing reinforcement from outside.”
Students complete classwork at their own pace, with teachers and administrators guiding them.
“Montessori teachers guide rather than instruct,” the AMS says, “linking each student with activities that meet his interests, needs, and developmental level. The classroom is designed to allow movement and collaboration, as it also promotes concentration and a sense of order.”
This sort of pedagogy engenders more informal relationships between teachers and their students.
“One of the unique things about MSR was the close relationships students had with the teachers,” says a former student who was in middle school with Stephanie Johnson and had Nick Smith for a teacher. “At the time, Smith’s relationships with all his students, not just [Stephanie], didn’t seem weird. But having experienced plenty more student-teacher relationships in high school and college, I can now see how his relationships with all his students were actually a little weird.” —Cole Villena